IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Enlightenment Project

The Enlightenment Project has been a handy term of abuse over the last generation, with a number of authors declaiming against its malign influence. If civilizations fall, as Hegel observed, by a morbid intensification of their own first principles, it made sense, especially to pessimists, to identify the first principles of a contemporary world seen as tending toward dystopia. In successive works from the mid-1990s on, John Gray identified the culprit as the Enlightenment Project. It had led to various dead ends. But the meaning of the project was never especially clear in Gray’s rendition, and anyone familiar with the eighteenth century’s vast outpouring of speculation must question the possibility of rendering it by short-hand expressions. Historians of political thought cast a wary eye upon the term, more impressed by its ability to mislead than enlighten. J.G.A. Pocock, for example, distinguishes between various national enlightenments, avoiding anything resembling a mega (or is it meta?) historical project, while Sankar Muthu uses it simply as a synonym for political thought in the long eighteenth century (1689-1815). Jonathan Israel’s conception of the Enlightenment is probably closest to what Gray had in mind—call it the Radical Enlightenment Project—but Israel's distinction between a radical and moderate enlightenment relegates many of the most impressive thinkers—Smith, Hume, Montesquieu, the American founders, to say nothing of Gibbon and Voltaire—into the less progressive camp. And yet one cannot have a proper Enlightenment get-together, much less a common enterprise, without them. (Article length: 1900 words)

Most historians of thought would quarrel with Gray’s point of departure, but an especially pertinent and refreshing critique of Gray’s line of analysis is Sankar Muthu’s Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton University Press, 2003). Though the Enlightenment Project is today identified with imperialism, Muthu shows that a host of impressive eighteenth century thinkers developed a profound critique of European empire, anticipating many of the very objections now raised against "The Project."
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The idea that 'the Enlightenment' or an 'Enlightenment project' can be identified and that contemporary moral and political thought should seek either to defend or subvert this project are prevalent assumptions that steer scholars away from more productive engagements with the manifold variety of Enlightenment-era philosophical arguments about cross-cultural moral judgements and international justice. With regard to empire and questions about cultural diversity, the most relevant aspects of Enlightenment moral, social, and political thought, as commonly conceived, are its commitments to (1) an ahistorical and universalist agenda that eschews any interest in, or at the very least gives little value to, the particularities of human life and cultural difference; and (2) a civilizing and imperializing mission (both in the literal and metaphorical senses of the term 'imperialize'), which uses a doctrine of progress to justify the subjugation of (among others) non-European peoples. . . . The persistent identification of eighteenth-century thought with the complex set of evolving social, economic, and political practices, beliefs, and institutions that are gathered under the banner of `modernity'—and the nearly unanimous agreement that 'the Enlightenment' championed universal values in a manner that was, rightly or wrongly, at the expense of a number of particular identities, beliefs, and practice—have either distorted or hidden from view a number of innovative arguments about cultural difference, humanity, and imperial politics in the Enlightenment era. . . .
Alasdair Maclntyre argues that "[i]t was a central aspiration of the Enlightenment. . . . to appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all those social and cultural particularities which the Enlightenment thinkers took to be the mere accidental clothing of reason in particular times and places". In this view, the most damning feature of `the Enlightenment' consists of its failure to appreciate the plural and diverse forms of human life.' This emphasis on cultural diversity and moral pluralism, the idea that we must begin to take such particularities seriously in any cogent moral and political philosophy by viewing them as integral and meaningful to human life, is often presented, then, as an indictment of modern thinking or as a repudiation of either modernity as such or, more specifically, of 'the Enlightenment project'. (260-61)
Muthu argues that the anti-imperialist political philosophies of Denis Diderot (1713¬84), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744¬1803) “cast doubt upon the accuracy and the helpfulness of the philosophical and historical categories by which eighteenth-century political thought is usually interpreted.” 
These thinkers are not usually grouped together; indeed, they could be viewed as fundamentally antithetical, as representing some of the contrasting ideal-types of eighteenth-century political thought: atheistic materialism, enlightened rationalism, and romantic nationalism. To begin with, such labels grossly distort their actual philosophies. Moreover, as I will argue, viewing these thinkers through the lens of debates about international relations that concerned them deeply, in particular those about the relationship between the European and non-European worlds, brings out the remarkable extent to which their political theories, though obviously unique to be sure, are nonetheless cut from the same cloth.  Diderot's immense philosophical influence in this period with regard to questions of imperialism explains in part the shared intellectual disposition about the immorality of empire and the related philosophical ideas upon which this disposition often rested: theories of human nature; conceptualizations of human diversity; and the relationship between universal moral and political norms, on the one hand, and a commitment to moral incommensurability, on the other. (2)
This denunciation of empire by eighteenth century thinkers is very different from the morally impassioned accounts, best represented by Las Casas, which indicted the gross abuses of Spanish imperial power in the Americas but which still accepted the imperial mission itself. Whereas imperial rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “was widely endorsed even by the most zealous critics of the violence perpetrated by Europeans in the New World,” in the late eighteenth century a more radical critique arises.
Truly anti-imperialist political philosophy emerges in the late eighteenth century among a broad array of thinkers from different intellectual and national contexts. A significant group of European political thinkers rejected imperialism outright as unworkable, dangerous, or immoral—for economic reasons of free trade, as a result of principles of self-determination or cultural integrity, due to concerns about the effects of imperial politics upon domestic political institutions and practices, or out of contempt over the ironic spectacle of ostensibly civilized nations engaging in despotism, corruption, and lawlessness abroad. In confronting the steadily expanding commercial and political power of European states and imperial trading companies over the non-European world, the diverse group of thinkers who assailed the injustices and countered the dominant justifications of European imperialism include Jeremy Bentham, Condorcet, Diderot, Herder, Kant, and Adam Smith.  Moreover, such denunciations of what Herder liked to call "the grand European sponging enterprise" were complemented by more specific attacks upon European imperial or quasi-imperial activities in particular regions. Along these lines, the most notable efforts are Edmund Burke's legislative attempts to curtail and to regulate the activities of the East India Company and his lengthy, zealous prosecution of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a senior East India Company official and the Governor-General of Bengal.  Burke argued that the British had failed to respect the sovereignty of local Indian powers, and had accordingly enriched themselves through illegal and unjust means, contributing not one iota, in his view, to the well-being of Indians themselves. In making such arguments, Burke was not a lone voice in the wilderness; rather, he raised concerns that were shared by a number of his contemporaries, a fact that has been neglected even by incisive scholars who have studied the connections between modern political theory and empire.' Of course, such anti-imperialist political thinkers fought an uphill battle, for defences of European imperial rule were still prevalent; the Enlightenment era is unique not because of the absence of imperialist arguments, but rather due to the presence of spirited attacks upon the foundations of empire. (4)
Prevalent accounts of what is called 'the Enlightenment' or 'the Enlightenment project' make a series of generalizations that very often egregiously misrepresent, blur, or hide from view entire strands of thought, some of which (were it not for the distorting lenses through which they are viewed) might have been understood to be nuanced and intellectually productive contributions not only to the debates of the long eighteenth century, but also to a range of still debated principles, intellectual tendencies, and institutions. Other strands may not make such positive contributions, but may instead provide us with a more sophisticated intellectual genealogy of problematic tendencies or arguments. The term 'Enlightenment' itself, of course, may still serve a useful function in contemplating eighteenth-century political thought, for there was a sense among many of the most perceptive thinkers of the eighteenth century that they were contemplating social and political affairs in a manner that was historically and philosophically distinctive, and in a way that constituted (at least in part) a break from some of their predecessors. It may be, then, that a set of background social and political conditions, and perhaps even a kind of intellectual temperament, could be plausibly identified, one that could orient us toward productively studying some set of the political and philosophical debates in the eighteenth century. (263)
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There are no American voices in Muthu's account, though it would seem that Americans had a thing or two to say about empire in the late eighteenth century. Adam Smith is mentioned but his views are not explored by Mutha in this work; however, they support his larger argument. In his Wealth of Nations. Smith looked forward to the day when the injustices of the Europeans toward the non-European world would pass, and he forecast greater equality among the different quarters of the globe. Such a multipolar system, brought about by the communication of knowledge that accompanied economic interdependence, would produce “that equality of courage and force” that could alone compel independent nations to respect one another’s rights.   
The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great: but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen. What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can foresee. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another's wants, to increase one another's enjoyments, and to encourage one another's industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial. To the natives however, both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned. These misfortunes, however, seem to have arisen rather from accident than from any thing in the nature of those events themselves. At the particular time when these discoveries were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries. Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another. But nothing seems more likely to establish this equality of force than that mutual communication of knowledge and of all sorts of improvements which an extensive commerce from all countries to all countries naturally, or rather necessarily, carries along with it.

Wealth of Nations, Book IV, vii. c.80, p. 626; hat tip to Gavin Kennedy, who excerpts this passage from Smith, and asks: “Did Adam Smith Uncharacteristically Predict the Course of Globalisation?
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The cover art for Muthu's handsome book is The Course of Empire: Destruction, by Thomas Cole, ca. 1836. Collection of the New York Historical Society.